I promise this isn’t a bit or a tortured ‘food as a metaphor for work’ thing.
Yesterday I made a nice loaf of bread:
And I thought to myself
How did I get to a place where I can make this?
Don’t get me wrong it’s not the best bread in the world or anything. It’s just a passable and practical loaf of sourdough. Nutritious. Tastes good. The family like it.
So then I remembered my first attempts at making sourdough bread. These attempts are on the internet:
That rubbish loaf was baked in November 2015. Quite a long time ago.
And then I remembered actually I’d tried before then. I had a book called ‘The Handmade Loaf’ by Dan Lepard. It was a lovely, enticing book. Full of exciting recipes. I don’t know where my copy is now. I have a vague memory of accidentally setting it on fire.
I recall where I was living when I got ‘The Handmade Loaf’ which dates it to 2006 or 2007. An even longer quite a long time ago.
Inspired by this book I was determined to make some sourdough bread. Hell, I was going to make all of the recipes. I followed the instructions for making a sourdough starter. That must have taken a couple of weeks and it involved yoghurt and raisins. It felt like such an investment of time! Also it was gross. But eventually the starter was ready and so I followed the instructions for making a simple white loaf and it was a disaster¹.
I had spent such a long time preparing to make this bread and I was very disappointed.
I didn’t attempt sourdough bread again for 8 or so years.
I don’t know why I picked it up again. I can speculate, maybe 3 things.
First my dad had a bread recipe he developed over several years and he would make it every weekend from when I was in my early teens. This bread had lots of different seeds in it, and a mix of flours, and it was made with instant yeast. My dad would make two really big loaves at a time. Nowadays my brother-in-law makes the same recipe. It’s really delicious and especially amazing as toast.
Second I had a colleague at the time, Henry. Henry is an amazing baker and his breads were an inspiration to me. Henry is so generous and enthusiastic too. I wanted to be able to make something like Henry made.
Third I was very, very sad. For better or worse I think I unconsciously wanted something to distract myself from feeling that way.
So week after week, loaf after loaf, I practiced my way into making decent bread. Perhaps because of that experience in 2006/7 I’ve been sceptical of recipes² for bread. I felt my way through making bread, learning and iterating. This suits how my mind works I guess. I like advice sure, and picking up tips. I dislike detailed instructions³. My main advice as an amateur bread baker in 2022 is you have to understand your conditions and adapt to them. Conditions like having a ropey oven that isn’t as hot as it claims it is. Or the difference in ambient room temperature between summer and winter. Or how long a starter is viable for.
It’s hard to articulate what I’ve learned. I feel it, and so I know it. And so I’m sorry but I can’t explain it to you very well, but I could give you some general advice and tips if you’d like?
I feel satisfied that I got to this place.
I feel satisfied that I did it by myself.
I feel satisfied that this is a journey I won’t ever finish.
So I said this isn’t a bit or a tortured ‘food as a metaphor for work’ thing, and that’s true. I did one of those already. But this reflection here genuinely does make me think about work. The ‘work’ here being digital transformation and so on in public service. The ‘work’ being driving positive change to make an established organisation better, to make an established organisation fit for purpose in the internet era⁴. That’s my work right now I am not a professional baker.
I had two inspirations to write this blog post. The first was that loaf of passable sourdough bread up there ☝️.
The second was the phrase
It’s a marathon not a sprint
which came into my head and I took exception to it. It’s a phrase I’ve heard often in the context of the work over the years.
It’s not right yeah?
Both of those things are races. A race has a start and a middle and an end⁵. This aphorism doesn’t account for practice. Both of these races require practice. Both of these races require a disproportionate investment of time and effort compared with the duration of the race itself in order to execute well.
So. I practice in order to be able to execute.
Not just loaves of bread. I build a team in order to be able to execute. I contribute to building capability and skill so that an organisation can execute a thing that is good. And then another thing that is good. And so on. All of those things that are good are a race, a self-contained moment in time. Or a loaf⁵.
That capability and ability to execute is the most important thing. Not the race [or new service or feature or whatever] itself.
I deliberately said ‘public service’ because hey whilst it’s not as low-stakes as a loaf of bread that might be rubbish we are considering an environment where the consequences of failure can be fairly mild, given the right conditions. Accepting any failure and learning from it is so healthy. Not repeating the same mistakes is so healthy. I want to be careful and caveat here. The individual cost can be high (I know this). Regardless, the institution carries on.
Like bread⁶, adapting to your environment is so important too. There isn’t a recipe to follow here, there’s just advice and tips. If you follow a recipe from somebody else’s kitchen it’s not going to work⁷ alright?
Writing this makes me think about the lifespan of the kinds of institutions I’m talking about, and understanding the difference between how quickly they expect something to happen and how quickly they actually change.
About how it should all be about practicing so that you can execute something that is good.
About how there’s a lesson for me in the amount of time it’s taken me to be able to make a passable loaf of bread.
¹ Writing this I remember I tried twice in 2006/7. The first time I accidentally used two tablespoons of salt instead of two teaspoons and so the bread was a disaster. The second time I used the right amount of salt and the bread was a disaster.
² Recipe books are so difficult. How to describe cookery steps to somebody who’s never done them before? Work in progress pictures are good sure. But let’s face it videos are a game changer for learning how to cook.
³ Recipes for cake are totally different. Don’t feel your way through making a cake unless you’ve made a lot of good cakes.
⁴ Credit that Tom Loosemore definition of ‘digital’ tweet that I can’t find right now because the internet is BROKEN half-arsed monkey pictures all over the place I didn’t think this was how it would go down in 2006/7 let me tell you.
⁵ This is not a tortured metaphor I swear.
⁶ This is not a tortured metaphor I swear.
⁷ This is not a tortured metaphor I swear.